Jeff Cahn: I Write Comics About Heroes for a LivingA comics interview article by: Jason Sacks
Jeff Cahn made the leap from screenwriting to comics in a major way. As you'll read in the interview below, Jeff has a whole slew of ideas about good comics and the ways to create them. I think you'll have a lot of fun reading what Jeff has to say.
Jason Sacks: Tell the readers of Comics Bulletin about Red Spike.
Cahn: Red Spike is a military action comic. Project Red Spike is a U.S. super-soldier program in which participants are affixed with implants in their brains and on their adrenal glands that allow them to produce and distribute massive amounts of adrenaline. It’s sort of like taking a soldier and adding a turbo button to him, so that should, or rather when, he needs that extra bolt of juice it’s available to him. So we took that program and focused on the two cadets, Matt and Greg, who made it through to the end as well as a few of the scientists and commanders.
Sacks: At the heart of the story is a conflict between best friends, Matt and Greg. How did you create the friends to be similar and different from each other?
Cahn: I don’t particularly see them as that similar. Really, the only thing I see that unites them is being in Red Spike. It’s such an intense and exclusive experience that the people involved in it can’t help but develop intimate relationships with one another because they’re living in this pressure cooker. There are only two people in the history of mankind who have completed Red Spike and it’s Matt and Greg, so there’s a natural kinship there. But I don’t think they’d be friends on the outside.
Sacks: The Red Spike program isn't necessarily evil; did you design it to be vague in its "evil side"?
Cahn: Sure. I mean, most things aren’t either pure good or pure evil. And most things like Red Spike start with the best of intentions and then devolve. I think the vagueness makes the evil all the more tragic because if they could just recalibrate one or two things the program would be fine.
Sacks: A big section of book one takes place at the Lincoln Memorial; is that intentional or symbolic of the story?
Cahn: We did that for a couple reasons. One, as a visual it’s awesome. The fight on the Lincoln Memorial contains, in my opinion, the most iconic imagery of the whole series. The two coolest images in the entire series, in my opinion, are Tex’s cover of Issue 4 or Salvador’s splash page inside where Greg is in the memorial as it collapses and Matt is rushing out with the child in his arms. But beyond that there definitely are symbolic elements to the choice. We think of Lincoln and we think of freedom and of excellent moral leadership in difficult times. I think the latter is lacking in American politics these days and much of that is a result of the military-industrial complex that Eisenhower warned against in his farewell address. It’s good business to be at war, and a good economy means reelection even if a bunch of young, mostly poor, kids have to die in some hellhole half a world away. The people at the top don’t care because their shares of Halliburton go up a few dollars and they get to serve another term and scheme on more ways to make more money while they monitor our phone calls and emails and ban the caskets of dead soldiers from being shown in the media. And Greg is sort of a symbol of both the kids and of the MIC so I thought it worked well to set what is ostensibly his demise at an American icon for freedom, or more specifically for the end of the atrocity of slavery.
Sacks: How did you design the costumes and events of Red Spike?
Cahn: I left a lot of those choices up to the artists.
Sacks: It has a pretty interesting and unique look. I noticed the scene in issue #4 that takes place in "Eisner's Bar"; who are your influences in comics?
Cahn: The four guys who I read the most are Warren Ellis, Mark Millar, Ed Brubaker, and Garth Ennis, so definitely them. But I come from an English background so I also try to draw from more classical influences like Shakespeare and Eliot and Hemingway and Faulkner.
Sacks: The main storyline has similarities to Captain America's origin; did you design it that way?
Cahn: I did not. I’m not particularly familiar with Captain America. He always seemed a little staid to me so I just never really got into it, which is kind of funny considering that I’m writing a super-soldier comic. But I have been reading the new Red Skull mini-series which I’m enjoying.
Sacks: I liked how the science in this book seems like it "almost" could happen; how much of it is based on real life and current science?
Cahn: I’m glad you found that. We wanted to make the science seem plausible, like right now, somewhere in the depths of the Pentagon something like this could be happening. I did a lot of research on fight-or-flight responses and the chemicals involved, but it’s the sort of thing where I felt like if you get too detailed it will fall apart because the Red Spike system is basically, at this time, physically impossible. So all of the chemical names and body parts are real, but the exact details of how the system works were left vague.
Sacks: Jeff, what made you move from screenwriting into comics?
Cahn: I’ve always been interested in comics, but up until recently it was just as a consumer. So I’d read them, or watch movies or TV based on comic characters, but I’d never tried to write one until Red Spike. And basically I’d been working with Michael (Benaroya) for a few years and he had the idea for this adrenalized super-soldier, and that’s who became Matt. And he just sort of let me run with the idea and build a world around that concept and we felt that the comic medium presented unique advantages in telling this story and it was something that I think we both were interested in trying and so we just went for it. But the principles behind good story telling are the same no matter the medium. It’s just the bells and whistles and some of the approach to things like dialogue and imagery that change some. But it’s been nice working in comics because writers are sort of the dogs of the film industry and you have way more creative control in comics. So if I see something I don’t like I can talk to the artist. From the writer’s point of view it’s much more collaborative than film. Most of the time in film they want to keep the writer away from the set because the director is the one running the show and the writer will just get in the way with unwanted ideas that impose on the director’s vision, but in comics the writer is the director in a lot of ways. So we had a great story that we felt really fit well into the comic medium and so it was natural for us to do a comic.
Sacks: How has creating this book changed your attitudes towards the military and its policies?
Cahn: I wouldn’t say it’s changed it so much as allowed me an outlet to discuss them. I’ve always had a tremendous amount of respect for the men and women who are putting their lives on the line on a minute-to-minute basis so that I, and other Americans, can enjoy the freedoms and way of life that I do. I did a signing at the Marine Corps Air Station at Miramar just outside of San Diego, and it was crazy. People were coming up to me and saying "thanks so much for doing this" and I was just like, wow, I write comics about heroes for a living, while you guys are actually being heroes, so thank you. I’m just some dude, you are the ones doing actual important work. And writing this has allowed me to try to humanize these guys because so often politics gets in the way when we talk about the military.
My real problem, as you can probably tell by now, is with the politicians. I’ve been disgusted by them for about a decade now. From Bush to Obama and everyone in Congress with the exception of a handful of members. It’s easy to send people off to die when they aren’t your kids and clearly no one in Congress has any compunction about that nor do they have any clear vision for when they’ll bring these misguided wars to an end. So…well I’ll just stop ranting there.
Sacks: What do we have to look forward to in the second volume?
Cahn: I think after you read issue #5 you’ll have a pretty clear idea. I don’t want to give too much away, but there’s a big twist that will impact the world of Red Spike for issues to come.